“None of us would say that we are on a course to success here in Afghanistan,” said Senator John McCain, speaking for a five-member bipartisan Senate delegation at a Kabul press briefing on July 4. The senators didn’t have to skip the July 4 parades to discover that. The United States continues its longest war–now in its 16th year–without a clue about how to win or how to get out. President Trump shows no sign of changing course: At the end of this month, he is slated to sign off on sending a few thousand more troops to Afghanistan.
Since invading in 2001, the United States has poured more than $117 billion into Afghanistan, one of the world’s poorest countries. The United States has also suffered the loss of 2,400 American soldiers’ lives and over 20,000 wounded. We’ve spent $11 billion in equipping the Afghanistan National Army, which is still unable to defend itself. The United States has had as many as 63,500 “boots on the ground” in Afghanistan; about 8,800 remain today. Afghani casualties are estimated at over 225,000, with a staggering 2.6 million Afghani refugees abroad, and another 1 million displaced internally.
The war has enjoyed bipartisan support from the beginning. Bush launched it. Obama began his administration approving a “surge” of 30,000 troops for what he called the “good war.” His hopes of bolstering the government, training a competent military, and getting out were dashed. Now, with the Taliban back in control of about a third of the country, Trump is reportedly about to repeat the surge–adding 3,000 to 5,000 troops–enough, at best, to avoid losing.
The United States went into Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks to get bin Laden, quash Al Qaeda and punish the Taliban for harboring them. Bin Laden is dead; Al Qaeda has metastasized across the region; the Taliban have been hunted for 16 years. No administration, Democratic or Republican, has the stomach for dispatching the number of troops or wreaking the level of violence necessary to have even a shot at suppressing the armed resistance. Afghanistan is not called the “graveyard of empires” for nothing.
With no exit plan, we get babble instead of strategy. The McCain delegation criticized Trump for not filling diplomatic posts in Afghanistan, as if another permanent ambassador or a special representative might make a difference. Asked to define winning, McCain offered up only gaining “an advantage on the battlefield.” He elaborated: “Winning is getting major areas of the country under control and working towards some kind of ceasefire with the Taliban.” But we’ve had major areas under control before, and the Taliban continued to resist, while corruption and division continued to cripple the Afghan government.
Even the normally sensible Senator Elizabeth Warren, accompanying McCain, served up platitudes. Criticizing Trump for not articulating a clear strategy, she said, “This trip only reaffirmed my belief that we need comprehensive, whole-of-government strategy. Nobody on the ground here believes there is a military-only solution.… The administration owes it to the American people and to our men and women putting their lives at risk, to provide that clear vision of where we’re headed.” But it is quite clear “where we’re headed”—to more years of endless war without victory, wasting more lives and resources.
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California Representative Barbara Lee offers a clearer vision. In late June, Lee gained the bipartisan support needed to adopt her amendment to repeal the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which passed days after the 9/11 attacks by a vote of 420-1 in the House and 98-0 in the Senate. (Lee was the sole dissenting vote.) The AUMF empowered the president to target anyone connected with the 9/11 attacks, whether states or non-states. It turned into exactly what Lee warned against: “a blank check to wage war anywhere, any time, for any length, by any president.” By 2016, according to a congressional Research Service report, the 2001 AUMF had been invoked publicly as authority for at least 37 military actions in 14 countries across the world, including the Philippines, Georgia, Libya, Somalia, and Horn of Africa. Most recently, Obama and Trump stretched it to cover our intervention in Syria.
In the Senate, Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Jeff Flake have introduced a new Authorization for Military Force that would repeal the 2001 AUMF while providing new authority for the war on terror. While repealing the authorization wouldn’t bring the war to a sudden end, it would force a clear debate on the limits of presidential authority going forward. A debate about what we are doing in Afghanistan might even break out.
After the Iraq debacle, the military perfected technology and tactics—from drones to special operations forces to covert raids–needed to sustain endless war without numerous “boots on the ground.” But Americans have little appetite for wars without victory. In the past two presidential elections, they have voted for the candidate who expressed the greater skepticism about wars and regime change, as both Obama and Trump did. A recent academic study suggests that the hidden costs of war may have played a role in Trump’s victory. The authors, Douglas Kriner, a political scientist at Boston University, and Francis Shen, a law professor at the University of Minnesota, found that after controlling for a range of variables, “Trump significantly outperformed Romney in counties that shouldered a disproportionate share of the war burden”–defined as military casualties–in Iraq and Afghanistan. A hidden anti-war vote may be growing in the very communities that supply the nation’s soldiers.
Trump, despite his professed “America First” posture, seems intent on doubling down on a failed course. Amid North Korean missile tests and Russiagate, the coming escalation in Afghanistan hasn’t garnered much attention. But the Pentagon’s push to get Trump to dispatch of more troops will insure that he is ensnared in a war with no exit.
We don’t need to waste more lives and resources in Afghanistan. We don’t need a comprehensive strategy for more war in Afghanistan. We need a simple decision to get out.